With 2026 slated for the first live trains on our country’s new high speed rail network the tricky, but genuinely exciting, problem facing the IT team at HS2 is how to plan and build technology support when no one really has any idea what technology will allow us to do that far into the future.
“The team’s mantra is ‘always think beyond the horizon’ — whilst delivering the technology the business needs now to build the infrastructure and ultimately operate the service,”
says Jan Ford, Head of Service Transition and responsible for business change and delivery in HS2 CIO James Findlay’s small but growing IT department.
In such a challenging and changing environment the team has unsurprisingly embraced agile and cloud technology — indeed the technology culture is totally ‘cloud first’ with a solid focus on user need.
Ford explains that the team “doesn’t just want to be ‘a good’ IT department, we want to craft a digital ecosystem at the heart of a world leading railway experience.”
Not only open about its ambition, the team is also open to ideas and innovation “wherever we can find them”. Deciding recently that external support was needed to act as ‘critical friend’ in their journey, HS2 went out to tender via G-Cloud for support.
“We needed to look critically at ourselves in terms of our key capabilities and what opportunities we have to tune those capabilities to meet our level of ambition,”
Selecting Rainmaker, Ford asked them to look specifically at three capability areas:
- Delivery: “Ensuring our ability to continue to deliver fast and well”
- Architecture: “Ensuring we not only get it right but remain flexible for the future”
- Team capability: “Understanding our values, behaviours, organisational structure and skill sets as a team”
The ongoing project is a collaborative and agile process — for example, user need discovery was subsequently added to the scope. Ford is clear about the benefits of Rainmaker’s support: “They don’t beat about the bush. They have been able to tell us quickly what needs to be done, but in such a positive way that it has created fantastic results within the team — real energy, passion and a belief in our collective capability.”
In classic agile terms the project is following a discovery — alpha — beta — live methodology, but with knowledge transfer baked in. The team and Rainmaker worked together on each stage to co-create and co-deliver, and Ford has been pleased with the results: “They have acted as true critical friends and engaged with the team throughout.”
Just the process alone of identifying ‘personas’ within the business and their specific user needs has improved engagement across the business and informed broader decisions about strategy: “Now we have these personas we can, for example, rapidly work on our end user device strategy in a deep dive based on real user needs.”
As an added bonus, the process “has also educated other parts of the business about user needs research — far beyond digital!”
Ford says that it has been particularly interesting to work on an agile basis in a traditionally ‘waterfall’ area such as construction: “It is culturally difficult to take an agile approach in engineering, but if you take a traditional approach all you will ever do is deliver a faster horse. We needed to make people think differently.”
This approach is leading to a fresh way of thinking around behaviour and design principles and the systems that people will need to support their work. One measure of the success of this approach — and the enthusiasm with which it has been welcomed across the organisation — is that Ford’s team is now struggling with rapid growth due to demand for its services.
Helping the team to manage this demand and prioritise the delivery pipeline is a core part of Rainmaker’s support: “We needed to step back to see how to remain agile and innovative but put controls in place to ensure that priorities were right and that delivery could be assured.
“Everyone needs to understand both the value chain of delivery and their part in that chain. Rainmaker helped us to embed this culture and integrate this thinking across the team,” adds Ford.
“In sporting terms I would call them coaches! But it is real hands on organisational coaching from experts with tremendous experience and capability — and they are not afraid to roll their sleeves up and dig in when they need to! “
2026 may well be a long way into the future but with a continued ruthless focus on user need and an agile, iterative approach digital could be at the heart of a thriving HS2 ecosystem.